SEPTEMBER 6, 2023
Sisyphus - Destined to Futility, or True Stoic?
Is human endeavour within a fixed lifespan futile? Is effort pointless? Is your ability to weave between tourists on your lunchtime run worthless? Your nearest nihilist may have you believe. But what if endeavour, effort and mastery are the ultimate acts of rebellion against the constraints of our own mortality?
As you’ll recall from your Ancient History class, (or “Classical Civilisation” for some of us), the story of Sisyphus in Greek mythology was portrayed as a metaphor for the futility of human endeavour.
Sisyphus was an intelligent and deceitful king who angered the gods with this treachery.
As a result he was condemned by Zeus to an eternal and tortuous punishment.
In his punishment, Sisyphus was forced to push a huge boulder up a perilously steep hill in the Underworld.
As he toiled closer to the top, the boulder would eventually roll back down to the bottom, and Sisyphus was forced to begin the task anew.
This labour was never-ending, as Sisyphus would never reach the summit.
In “The Meaning of Life”, the American philosopher Richard Taylor offers us the bleakest interpretation of Sisyphus.
He argues that as Sisyphus finds no meaning or satisfaction in his eternal task, he is a symbol of utter futility.
Challenging more sympathetic explanations of his plight, Taylor argues that given the choice to stop pushing the boulder, Sisyphus would.
This therefore implies he can find no inherent meaning or value in the task.
In a situation devoid of all meaning, it challenges the idea that in the real world, meaning can always be found.
Subscribers to the French existentialist Camus, who believed that life was absurd and devoid of inherent meaning, can find some comfort in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”.
Camus argues that Sisyphus represents the human condition, showing that the only way to confront the absurdity of our situation and to find meaning in life, is to plough on regardless.
Sisyphus heroically defies the Gods, continuing his task in acceptance of his fate.
By pushing the boulder with determination, knowing the outcome, he creates purpose in his task and transcends the meaningless of the cycle.
Camus famously asks us to “imagine Sisyphus happy”, because he symbolises man’s ability to find pleasure in the act of living itself, on his own terms.
But can a stoic interpretation offer us a more virtuous answer?
The writer Elliott M. Simon places the myth of Sisyphus in the context of the renaissance hero.
Sisyphus' relentlessness represents the perils of human life, where nothing is ever resolved and one is forced to focus on process rather than results or personal achievement.
Many runners will accept that their greatest achievements may be behind them, but the virtue exists in the process, the mastering of the repetition, and the willingness to suffer.
Sisyphus' willingness to push the boulder points to the heroic, indefatigable nature of man.
Simon argues that humanity can learn from the “Stoic Sisyphus”, as the realisation of total human excellence can never be fully achieved, with virtue existing only in the pursuit of it.
Relating this renaissance idea back to English mythology, Simon offers King Arthur as another example of virtuous pursuit.
Like Sisyphus, Arthur will never see his labour bear fruit, but struggles relentlessly towards a legacy of chivalric perfection in the world.
“He transcends his worldly circumstance without the consolation of achievement.”
A truly Stoic message to end on. Or perhaps that’s not the ending?
As loyal readers will have learnt from previous journals, time and by extension infinity, are merely social constructs, that can be bent to destruction.
So maybe there’s still a chance that Sisyphus, struggling away defiantly in the Underworld, will one day reach the top.